Archive for October, 2010

The real issue

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As CO2 levels in the atmosphere continue to rise (and given the current state of global action they could quite possibly go on rising for much of this century) we hear a great deal about storms and droughts but not a huge amount about the really difficult issue that most countries face, rising sea levels.

Although the hydrological cycle will inevitably change as a result of rising temperatures, there is still much research going on to understand what this means in terms of global, regional and local precipitation. By contrast, a great deal seems to be known about sea level, CO2 and temperature, thanks to the paleoclimate record. This was the subject of the first session of the 31st MIT Global Change Forum which was held in Brussels last week in association with Université Catholique de Louvain. The specific focus was the interglacial periods of the last million years which saw global temperatures and CO2 levels at 1850 (i.e. pre-industrial) levels. These relatively warm periods occur every 100-150,000 years (we are in one now) as a result of the additional heat falling on the planet from small variations in the earths orbit around the sun.

The most recent inter-glacial peak was the Eemian, about 130,000 years ago, which saw both CO2 levels and temperature peak at the top end of the inter-glacial range, but with the CO2 level far below the current 390 ppm. There is good evidence that the sea level in this period topped out at some 7 metres above current levels, before plunging 135 metres as glaciation took hold in the northern hemisphere.  This of course raises the issue of where sea level might peak as a result of the current elevated levels of CO2, although the analysis that was presented was more about where so much water would actually come from.

Certainly there is enough in Greenland to raise sea levels another six metres, but we know that Greenland didn’t melt completely during the Eemian period as we have much older Greenland ice cores. Rather, the evidence points to a partial melting of the Greenland ice sheet followed by the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. The former contributed some 2.2-3.4 metres of sea level rise and the latter 4.4-6 metres. During this period the polar regions of the northern hemisphere experienced temperature rises of 3-5°C, in response to a global temperature rise of 1-2°C, or less. The rate of sea level rise was 5-6 mm/year or ~5.6 metres over 1000 years. This sounds like an extraordinary amount of time, but we shouldn’t forget that some buildings in both London and Paris are already nearly 1000 years old and still in use! We also shouldn’t forget that the extra radiative forcing driving the change today is likely to be quite a bit more than in the Eemian period. 



Estimates of near term sea level rise vary significantly, with some studies showing an overall change of up to 2 metres  by the end of this century, considerably more than that given in the IPCC 4th Assessment Report. Such a rise could be very disruptive and require considerable relocation of people and infrastructure (see below, Long Island).


It was an interesting session and set the stage for another excellent MIT conference.

Unrelated to MIT but nevertheless related to the subject above is some recent holiday reading that I enjoyed. The novel, Ultimatum by Matthew Glass, is set in 2033 just as a new President is coming into office in the United States. It is a world that has tried hard but done little to address emissions. By this time the US already has a Relocation Program underway, in response to rising sea levels and more severe storm surges. In his first meeting with the outgoing President, the new Commander in Chief learns that sea level rise is accelerating (a fact kept from the public) and that a much more ambitious relocation program must be established. He also learns that a diplomatic initiative with China to agree on real and decisive cuts in emissions is going nowhere. With a President faced with potential social catastrophe in the decades ahead, so a real political page turner begins, ending, not surprisingly in an ultimatum situation with the Chinese over emissions. It’s a good read and puts the science into an interesting political perspective.

The price may not be right!

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Last year I argued in a post that the EU-ETS price was fine (at that time it had slipped to some €8 in the depths of the recession) in that it reflected the market circumstances of the day and needless to say the system would still deliver the targeted reduction by 2020. At that time it even appeared that there was still a considerable shortage of allowances in the intervening years so we could expect quite substantial infrastructure investment, even including CCS, by 2020.

A year is a long time in a recession and although the price has recovered somewhat and in any case the 2020 target will be met, the current circumstances of the ETS may not be right at all. It is now pretty clear that by the start of Phase III there will be a considerable banked surplus of allowances in the system. The actual number varies depending on who calculates it, but it would seem to be somewhere between 800 million and 1.4 billion allowances. It means that not a great deal of effort will have to be expended to meet the Phase III targets and that it is unlikely any transformational change in power infrastructure will actually take place – save for meeting the renewables target. The Netherlands is even seeing 4 GW of unabated coal come into the mix.

This isn’t exactly what the Commission had in mind when it set out on the ETS journey back in 2001. Rather, their goal was much more ambitious. The expectation was for a radical departure from business as usual, including the commercialization and early deployment of technologies such as CCS. Although there should at least be the EU demonstration CCS facilities up and running by then, it is not looking like there will be much more. The real change may not be seen until the 2020s, which may be fine from the perspective of the EU meeting it’s reduction targets but certainly isn’t fine from the perspective of seeing a new generation of power technologies enter the market and be available globally, particularly in countries like China. Such an outcome isn’t compatible with the global need to quickly reduce emissions.

The result of all this is that we are starting to see a reaction from policy makers. The Commission has proposed shifting the EU target to 30% even though the formal international agreement trigger for this has not been achieved. The new UK government has proposed both a UK only ETS price floor and an Emissions Performance Standard (EPS) for the UK power sector. On the face of it none of these are particularly welcome, in part because their implementation further undermines the carbon price. But they are understandable. This is hardly an undercurrent discussion either, not so long ago The Times weighed into the debate with an editorial discussing a carbon floor price!

The Times

22 September 2010

Even though they wear yellow ties, green is still the colour most associated with Liberal Democrats. So Chris Huhne was on comfortable territory at his party’s conference yesterday, telling the audience that the coalition Government would be “the greenest ever” (see page 15). The Energy and Climate Change Secretary’s remarks about nuclear power were less popular. But his statement that “I’m fed up with the stand-off between renewable and nuclear, which means we have neither” was persuasive.

Like many thoughtful greens, Mr Huhne has come to accept that nuclear power has to be part of the energy mix if Britain is to decrease its reliance on imported fuels, reduce carbon emissions and reduce volatility. While rightly opposing any direct subsidy for nuclear power, Mr Huhne has understood that investment will only be unlocked for such long-term projects if there is some certainty in pricing. His commitment to create a “floor” price for carbon helps to provide that certainty for all low-carbon technologies, as well as nuclear.

It will be an essential spur to the expansion of the low-carbon industry that Britain needs to create if it is to meet its climate change commitments.

In the case of the 30% target, this is a tool that the Commission has available and they could argue that the actions by nearly 100 countries as a result of the Copenhagen Accord represents a sufficient trigger. But the issue is more complex than it looks. The EU is comprised of two sectors, one part that is under the ETS and one which isn’t. Any shift in the target would require an adjustment in both sectors, yet in the non-ETS part of the economy it is difficult to see what actions can deliver a further reduction in the limited time now available.  Vehicle efficiency standards are now in place, renewable fuel targets set and various national policies aimed at buildings are underway. Changing them all would be problematic. In the traded sector a new target would support the carbon price and at least speed up technologies such as CCS.

The approach proposed by the UK targets the power sector, but there is a significant side effect. Because of the ETS carbon cap, any additional UK only action will simply be offset by less action in the EU. That means the UK is taking an additional and arguably unnecessary fiscal burden in the overall delivery of EU reductions. The problem here is 100% policy leakage.

So the problem remains, what to do with the ETS? There are potentially two ways forward.

  • The first is to change the cap in the EU-ETS for Phase III, in effect withdrawing some one billion allowances from the system. This would correct the overhang from the recession and support the price going forward, driving the sort of transformational investment which was wanted from the outset. What isn’t clear is how this would be done. Recallibration may require the reopening of the Directive, perhaps not a politically desirable step. The action is equivalent to changing the overall EU target to 23-24%, but of course with all the change in the ETS and no further change in the other sectors.
  • A second approach would be to design a more structural change to the system. This could be picked up from Phase IV onwards and would involve the implementation of a reserve price in future (starting in 2019, say, for Phase IV) allowance auctions. The reserve should always be announced well in advance, but it’s existence would allow long term support for the carbon price, thereby enabling the investment environment that was the original intention of the system. Such a design feature allows the ETS to be corrected from to time in the event of unexpected shocks such as the recent recession. Implementing a reserve price for Phase IV and beyond would give new value to existing allowances in that any current surplus could be banked forward into the future period and benefit from the known higher price.

It could be that both steps need to be taken, in part because there may be a reluctance to announce a reserve so far in advance, although even its existence would potentially send a price signal. The implementation of a reserve would also force the definition of the broader Phase IV architecture and target now which in turn would offer more predictability for system participants and potentially support longer term carbon market development including projects in developing countries which can be linked via the CDM. The ideal situation would be to see the CDM extended through to the 2020s, but that would require a bold political agreement in Cancun or South Africa in 2012.

The EU-ETS has become the poster child for a carbon market based approach to greenhouse gas mitigation. As such it needs to work, not only delivering compliance but also the step change in type and scale of investment that policy makers are looking for. If it doesn’t do this we can hardly expect others to pick up and implement this approach, which in turn means other less attractive and more costly policy measures.

What to do with sulphur?

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I was fortunate to be invited to attend CIGI 10 just outside Toronto, Canada. The annual “deep dive” policy discussion is held by the Centre for International Governance Innovation, a policy think-tank founded by Jim Balsillie, co-CEO of Research in Motion (a.k.a. Blackberry) and this year the focus was the global governance around the climate. While there was much discussion on bilateral vs. multilateral, UNFCCC or G20 and so on, one particular discussion focused on the role of sulphur in the atmosphere.

The discussion started with the current reality of sulphur being artificially pumped into the troposphere through the worldwide use of High Sulphur Fuel Oil (HSFO) in ships (and of course from other sources such as coal fired power stations not fitted with scrubbers). The combustion of this fuel powers much of the worlds ocean going fleet and the sulphur leaves the ship through the funnel. HSFO contains some 3.5% sulphur, so a modern container ship travelling from Shanghai to Southampton via the Suez Canal will eject about 30 tonnes of sulphur into the atmosphere, along with some 3,000 tonnes of CO2. The CO2 of course adds to the growing accumulation of this gas in the atmosphere, but the sulphur remains in the atmosphere for just a few weeks in aerosol form before dropping out. Nevertheless, as a result of all the marine activity and other sources of sulphur, there is a net suspension of sulphur in the atmosphere above us. The result of this is that it cools the atmosphere by scattering incoming radiation, offsetting some of the warming impact of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

But sulphur also has a negative effect in terms of local and regional air quality so the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has moved to limit sulphur in marine fuel. A recent analysis by Winebrake et al (2009) discusses the climate impact of the marine fuel sulphur specification reducing to 0.5% globally – a potential end goal of the current IMO limits. Whereas the global annual average cooling effect of shipping is currently some -0.6 W/m2 (compared to the current additional radiative forcing from post-industrial CO2 now approaching 2 W/m2), this is shown to reduce to -0.3 W/m2 in the case of a global 0.5% sulphur specification – in other words, another 0.3 W/m2 of warming.

But this was just the start of the discussion. The real issue was the potential role of sulphur in deliberately managing the global temperature – a practice more commonly referred to as geoengineering. Trying to do this at sea level and injecting sulphur into the troposphere has far less impact than doing the same in the stratosphere. For the same amount of surface cooling, approximately one twentieth the amount of sulphur is required at 25,000 metres because the half-life of the aerosol suspension is some 18 months at that height, rather than just the few weeks seen in the low atmosphere.

An indicative calculation has shown that a fleet of 150 aircraft injecting sulphur into the stratosphere on a continuous basis could potentially offset the warming associated with a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere. The cost of this is estimated to be no more than $10 billion per annum and perhaps quite a bit less.

So began the real debate – the implications of being able to manage atmospheric warming for an amount so small that even some individuals could undertake the experiment, or perhaps a group such as the small island states in defense of their territory. For major emitters this would be a paltry sum, far less than some of the direct mitigation options. But if such a practice were undertaken, what then for the global endeavors to reduce emissions? Would we just give up trying? And while some amount of cooling might be achieved, phenomena such as ocean acidification would continue. Who should decide on such weighty issues and what if one nation or group of nations decided to conduct the practice unilaterally? One participant asked if the practice might even be in breach of Article 2 of the Framework Convention.

In the short time we had there was of course no resolution to the issues raised, but it was suggested that a global aerosol management framework was as important to the climate discussions as the greenhouse gas framework slowly being formulated or the CFC framework that exists under the Montreal Protocol. But no such framework is seriously under discussion. I won’t be so bold as to suggest answers to the questions raised, or even to attempt to list the dozens of other ethical and moral questions raised by this topic. But it certainly did provide a lively start to the Sunday morning portion of the conference!